Thursday 27 November 2014

P.D. James - a few thoughts

The sad news of P.D. James' death at the age of 94 has prompted heartfelt tributes from her many friends and admirers, including fellow practitioners such as her great friend Ruth Rendell, Val McDermid and Mark Billingham. We have lost one of the great detective novelists; there's no doubt that when future historians of the genre look back on twentieth century crime fiction, they will rank P.D. James highly. I'll say something more about her detective fiction soon, but for now I will just share a few personal thoughts about her.

I began reading her work in my teens, and soon became hooked. My first encounter with her in person came in the mid-80s, when she was on a publicity tour at the time of publication of the excellent A Taste for Death. I may be a writer now, but I've always been (and always will be) a fan, and when she came to my home town in Cheshire I was delighted to acquire a signed copy of the book. A few years later, when I'd achieved publication, I was asked to co-edit an anthology produced by the East Anglian chapter of the Crime Writers' Association, as I'd previously put together an anthology for the Northern chapter. The result was a book called Anglian Blood, and it contained a mix of fact and fiction. Phyllis was then a member of the CWA (this was before the controversy that sadly led to her resignation) and she was good enough to contribute a short piece called "Is There Arsenic Still for Tea?" A great thrill - my only regret was the book finished up with perhaps the most horrific cover artwork I've ever seen. I dread to think what she thought of it, and took care not to ask!

On the memorable night that I became a member of the Detection Club, I had the joyful experience of sitting with Phyllis, as well as two other writers I'd long admired, Jessica Mann and Simon Brett. More daunting, but also pleasurable in a different way, was the experience of delivering a talk about Golden Age fiction at St Hilda's College, with Phyllis sitting in the front row.

When Simon asked me to become the Detection Club's first archivist, Phyllis proved to be very supportive. She had long taken an interest in the genre's history - she was a passionate admirer of Dorothy L. Sayers, and author of Talking about Detective Fiction - and one day she rang me up out of the blue to tell me about something she'd discovered about the Club's early days. What's more, she promptly sent the material to me. A small thing, perhaps, but indicative of the kindness of which many who knew her better than I did have spoken. Last year, I had the great pleasure of sitting next to her at a dinner, when we discussed The Golden Age of Murder, her researches into the Wallace case (subsequently published in the Sunday Times) and her true crime book, The Maul and the Pear-Tree, co-written with a former colleague, T.A. Critchley.

That night, she and I and Sheila Keating journeyed home from the dinner in a taxi together, and Phyllis regaled us with an account of being awarded the freedom of Lyons. She was witty and convivial, interesting and interested. You'd never have guessed she was 93. A few days ago, Sheila very kindly sent her the manuscript of The Golden Age of Murder, which has just gone through a final copy edit, but the news came back that Phyllis was too frail to read a full-length book. Of course, I like to think that she would have enjoyed it, but I'll never know. What I do know is that she was not only a fine writer, but more importantly a warm and wise woman who showed a great deal of generosity to younger writers, of whom I am just one. Hers, truly, was a life well lived.      


Carol Flatt said...

PD James is one of my favorite crime fiction authors, the kind of author that when a new book has come out, I rush to buy it, knowing it will always be an excellent story. Sadly, there won't be any more stories from Phyllis Dorothy James; however, I have her books to re-read and I'm thankful for them. Years ago, I was in Blackwell's in Oxford buying a book and the young man helping me told me that his mother had once been helping with the flowers in church in Oxford (St. Michael's, perhaps? Not sure) and in came P D James to do the same, and his mother was thrilled to meet her. May you rest in peace, dear lady and thank you for many hours of great reading.

lyn said...

What wonderful memories, Martin. P D James is one of my favourite detective novelists. She always came across in interviews & talks as a very wise, good-humoured woman. I heard her speak at the Melbourne Writers Festival in conversation with Ruth Rendell, I think, & it was a wide-ranging, fascinating event. Her memoir, Time To Be In Earnest, is interesting on her life & her development as a writer.

Sergio (Tipping My Fedora) said...

Great tribute to a fine writer Martin - thanks.

seana graham said...

Thanks for this, Martin. I've read several tributes from admiring crime writers who have had the pleasure of meeting her, but I really appreciate the longer view in time. It's amazing the effect she's had, and even more amazing the way she handled her role as reining queen of the crime fiction world. The beauty of a well-lived life is very evident.

Martin Edwards said...

Carol,Lyn,Sergio, Seana, thank you. Yes, Time to be in Earnest is very interesting indeed.